The Reward Network of the Brain

Why do we do some things consistently like eating good food, having relationships, getting a ticket on a safer airline during the vacation season? These are some natural instincts. Eating is important for survival; so is procreating and striving to keep yourself safe. How do you feel whenever you do any of these things? If you feel pleasure, if you feel rewarded, that’s your brain at work. It’s releasing a lot of dopamine into the brain to make you feel rewarded after each of these activities. The dopamine release makes you feel good and you repeat these activities. That’s why dopamine is called the “feel good” hormone and is a crucial part of the reward network of the brain. By making us feel good, dopamine ensures we repeat these actions to experience the pleasure again and with this, the brain ensures we do the things needed for survival.

Dopamine is associated with various things. With its projections in the amygdala and cingulate gyrus, it facilitates emotion formation and processing. It’s interesting that there are dopaminergic projections in the amygdala. We typically associate amygdala with fight, flight, freeze. Then how do the dopaminergic projections interact with the amygdala activity? They can subdue the amygdala hijack and actually turn an experience into a pleasurable experience. What does this mean for us on a day to day basis? Think about what makes you experience an amygdala hijack. Is it stepping out of your comfort zone? Can you envision the positive outcome of stepping out of the comfort zone and having done something different that you typically don’t do? That positive anchor can make you seek stepping out of the comfort zone without really feeling anxious or may even make you feel excited.

This is why working on strengths is very important. Thomas Carlyle once wrote, “Wondrous is the strength of cheerfulness, and its power of endurance – the cheerful man will do more in the same time, will do it better, will persevere longer, than the sad or sullen.” To feel cheerful at the workplace, people have to enjoy what they do. A strength is defined as something that comes naturally to you and you love doing. That is why when you work on a strength, there’s a release of dopamine, you enjoy the task and you seek to do it again. When we work with people we like, get the projects that we consider plum, get the visibility we want, we experience dopamine and it reinforces the behaviors that led to the activities or outcomes. Understanding how the reward system of the brain works and putting it to good use to engage teams for high performance is an essential skill managers must hone.

At the same time, there are some side effects of the reward system. A commonly observed danger is people getting addicted to drugs. Without making any effort or work, you experience pleasure and dopamine reinforces the choice, leading to a vicious addiction cycle. What causes procrastination? Insta reels, TikTok or Facebook Watch. Why? Because without any real work, we are able to experience pleasure and the dopamine release reinforces that choice – of not doing any real work and just continuing the mindless scroll. We get engrossed in a game of table tennis or foosball and forget work because of the same reason. On top of that, if the work we have to go back to is not energizing, we won’t want to go back to it because it’s not creating a pleasant experience. Therefore, planning rewards after activities that are not rewards in themselves matters.

As takeaways, here are a few things to consider:

  1. Identify your strengths and engage with them more.
  2. While working on your weaknesses, work with people whose company you enjoy.
  3. Plan a break you enjoy after engaging in a weakness activity.
  4.  Instead of taking an Insta Reels break, take a break of engaging in a strengths activity, a hobby, or catching up with colleagues or friends.
  5. Plan a reward for activities that you are not interested in and work towards it.

If we are able to understand the reward system, we will be able to reap its rewards well.


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